President Bush, it is said, enjoys befuddling pundits with his surprise Cabinet choices. He certainly succeeded with his second-term pick to head up the federal Department of Energy. Samuel W. Bodman is not only a little-known figure in the energy community - he is little-known, period, except in the Treasury Department, where's he's been serving as a deputy secretary for nearly a year, and before that in the Commerce Department.
The 66-year-old Chicago native is a chemical engineer and former academic whose chief qualification for the top energy post, says Bush, is his "great talent for management." He's "a problem-solver who knows how to set goals ... and how to reach them."
These qualities should serve the agency well, despite Bodman's lack of experience in the energy industry. He'll be on a steep learning curve as he deals with volatile oil prices, the need for new energy sources and environmental concerns.
One of his most important tasks will be overseeing and developing policies for the nation's nuclear weapons facilities, including the Savannah River Site. Currently some of the more promising new missions for the sharply downsized SRS, such as the Modern Pit Facility and the MOX plant, are on hold.
But one area in which SRS expertise could play a pivotal role for a problem-solver such as Bodman is in the development of new commercial nuclear power plants. If we do not want to bequeath thousands of tons of plutonium to our descendants, we must collect and burn it as nuclear fuel. Unlike fossil-fuel energy, nuclear energy is clean - it does not pollute the air, nor can alarmists claim it threatens the Earth's climate with global warming.
Moreover, it is hard to see how the United States can ever become energy-independent - which should certainly be one of the energy secretary's goals - without doing what France, the Netherlands and other European countries are doing: building more commercial nuclear reactors.
U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., whose district covers part of SRS, believes that a research reactor could be built at the site for the Savannah River National Laboratory, the research arm of SRS that was recently upgraded to a national lab. A model reactor, designed to take next-generation technology to a commercial scale, is another option for SRS.
One of the best assets SRS has going for it is the people. The Aiken-Augusta area has always been supportive of the facility, even when it was in the nuclear-bomb making business, and would certainly be supportive again if it got into researching or constructing commercial nuclear power plants.
Most of the country would be as welcoming of a new nuclear energy center in their back yard as they would a herd of diseased mad cows, but most people in our area would hail the jobs and other economic benefits that nuclear power would bring.
That's something our economic development teams should make sure the new energy secretary learns - and learns quickly.